What Brings Me Joy?

Yesterday was the second session of the series on Discerning My Place in the World I am offering this year at UST Law School. The subject of our gathering yesterday was the question What Brings Me Joy?

An important part of our discernment of who we will be int he world has to do with ascertaining what brings us joy. Yet it is a question many people never focus on.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardon said “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Unlike happiness, which depends on external stimuli, joy comes from a sense of rightness about where I am with God and others.

During our session, I spoke briefly about joy and then showed an excerpt from a video by Michael Hims title Three Key Questions. The full video appears below; we watched the first eleven minutes. After watching the film, the participants spent time in silent personal reflection with some quotes and questions on a handout I distributed (which you can find here). We managed to leave a little time at the end for dyad sharing and some larger group discussion, focusing particularly on how we recognize joy and distinguishing between happiness and joy.

[for those receiving this by e-mail, click through to the blog to see the video]

Note: I am informed by one of my readers here that the phrase “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God” was “first coined by Leon Bloy, a now-obscure 10th-century French writer. Teilhard repeated it.” (With thanks to Hilary)

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a doctor of the church. She is more commonly referred to as Therese of Lisieux or The Little Flower.

Therese entered cloistered life at age 15 and died at age 24. She thus might easily have passed into obscurity but for the fact that the sisters of her Carmelite convent published her autobiographical writings, titled Story of a Soul, after her death.

Therese inspired people with her “little way of spiritual childhood.” In an introduction to the Story of a Soul, John Beevers describes Therese’s little way as

based on complete and unshakeable confidence in God’s love for us. This confidence means that we cannot be afraid of God even though we sin, for we know that, being human, sin we shall but, provided that after each fall, we stumble to our feet again and continue our advance to God, He will instantly forgive us and come to meet us. St. Thérèse does not minimise the gravity of sin, but she insists that we must not be crushed by it. . . . God’s love for us must be matched, within our human limitations, by our love for Him. . . . Now this interchange of love does away with the feeling that to please God we must do great and extraordinary things.

Therese’s image of God as a loving parent both aided her confidence in God’s love for us and gave her security that one need not do great things to please God.

Regarding little things, she wrote, “I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue.” My friend John Donaghy elaborates on this theme in his blog post of today, which I encourage you to read. You can find it here.

Regarding the constancy of God’s love, she gave the example of a little child who had “just annoyed his mother by flying into a temper or by disobeying her.” She observes that if the child hides away and sulks, he cannot experience is mother’s pardon. However, “if he comes to her, holding out his little arms, smiling, and saying, ‘Kiss me, I will not do it again,’ will his mother not be able to press him to her heart tenderly and forget his childish mischief?” This is true, says Therese, even though the mother knows full well that her child will, in fact, do it again. That the child will do it again “does not matter; if he takes her again by her heart, he will not be punished.” Therese understood that no matter what we do, when we turn back to our God and open our arms to Him, He is always ready to welcome us into His embrace.

Feast of the Angels

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels (in some countries, Michaelmas Day).

Archangels are believed to be messengers of God sent to guide and protect us. The three we celebrate today are named in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.

Michael, called the “prince of the heavenly host,” is known as the great protector. In the tradition of the Church, Michael was the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels, and so he is considered the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil.

Gabriel is known as the bearer of good news. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Gabriel who announces to Zachariah the birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary the birth of Jesus. And in the Hebrew Scripture, he was sent to Daniel to explain a vision concerning the Messiah.

Raphael is known as the divine healer. In the Hebrew Scripture, he took care of Tobias on his journey. As a result, he is invoked for journeys.

I don’t know if these three archangels have significance for some of you, but I see no reason to doubt the existence of spiritual, non-corporeal beings”, as angels are referred to in the Catechism. (Indeed, according to one polls I saw, 77% of adults do believe in angels.)

Many do have devotion to the angels. And while this is good, there is also a danger. The Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy of the of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments identifies two possible deviations:

* when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and daemons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer;

* when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.

I think those are good warnings to keep in mind.

With those reminders, Happy Feast of the Archangels!

In October of last year, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The synod, which will take place at the Vatican from October 5-19 of this year, is a means through which the Holy Father “wishes to continue the reflection and journey of the whole Church, with the participation of leaders of the Episcopate from every corner of the world,” in the words of Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi. The synod is likely to address some difficult issues regarding the family, such as contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce and other topics touching on family life.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked for today to be set aside as a Day of Prayer for the General Assembly. Churches and parish and other communities are invited to pray during Mass and at other ligurgical celebrations not only today, but in the days leading up to the synod and during the synod itself. Individuals are also encouraged to join in these prayers.

The suggested prayers include the Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod, composed by Pope Francis:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division: may all who have been hurt or scandalized !ind ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer. Amen.

“Mixed” Marriages

I do a lot of parish-based adult faith formation in Catholic parishes. I know from that experience that many people are in “mixed marriages,” that is marriages where only one spouse is Catholic. That in itself creates issues regarding how and where to worship and how children are raised.

The potential issues for conflict are magnified in a situation where the Catholicism of one spouse results from that spouse’s conversion. Hence the title of Lynn Nordhagen’s book When Only One Converts, recommended to me by someone with whom I work at a local parish. The book seeks to address the question of “what happens when the two most important relationships in your life seem to be on a collision course?

The book pulls together a number of stories of people who have faced this situation. As the introduction to the book notes, the stories “all witness to the strength and complexity of both the marital bond and the inexorably magnetic pull of Catholicism. Some of these accounts include happy resolutions to the initial rupture caused by the conversion of one spouse. Others remain unresolved but hopeful – even where further rupture has occurred.”

One of the things that stood out for me in reading the book is the need for God’s grace in what is essentially a matter of the heart, not the head. As one of the writers observed

Grace is the key. Without God’s grace we would have never cut through the “hodgepodge” of erroneous ideas and ingrained misconceptions. With God’s grace, the fears subsided, the path was made straight, and the light of truth scattered our darkness.

This recognition of the role of grace is the key when one spouse converts ahead of the other. Argumentation accomplishes little. In fact, it is impossible to simply argue someone into the kingdom of God. If it were, conversion would be reducible to a merely intellectual exercise. However, conversion, while involving the intellect, is essentially spiritual and, therefore, is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit.

That recognition also has implications for all of our efforts to evangelize others, in a marital relationship or otherwise. The book quotes from the journal of Elisabeth Leseur, a French convert of the late 19th Century. What she wrote is as relevant today as it was when she wrote it:

To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love. To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one’s intelligence, to enlarge one’s soul…’ to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference…to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear.

I recommend the book for couples struggling to deal with the challenges raised by the conversion of one spouse as well as for those ministering in a parish setting.

Walking the Camino

One year ago today, I took my first steps out of St. Jean Pied de Port along the Camino Francais route of the Camino de Santiago.

Many of you who are regular readers followed the blog posts I occasionally wrote along the way to Santiago and on to Finisterre, so you know what a powerful experience the Camino was for me. Arriving in Santiago after almost 500 miles of walking was amazing and deeply emotional.

Almost from the time I returned, I began thinking about my next Camino. Lately those feelings have grown stronger, doubtless because of the approach of this one-year anniversary. I still can’t decide between walking the Camino Portuguese or the Camine del Norte, but I do plan on walking one of them.

For today, however, I just give thanks that I was able to take the time to walk the Camino, that I had so many friends and family members praying for and otherwise supporting me along the way, and that it was such a wonderful experience.

For those who may be interested, upon my return last year, I gave a talk at the law school on Lessons from the Camino. You can listen to a podcast of my talk and see a short slide show of some of the pictures I took here.

Yesterday, the speaker at Weekly Manna was the law school dean, Rob Vischer, whose theme was faith and doubt.

Rob shared that from the time he was a child he had doubts about the tenets of his faith, doubts that still rise now and then. He also realized from an early time that the stakes were high for how he resolved those doubts.

He spend time talking about how he deals with doubt when it arises, and what are the sources of his faith. I think the most important take-away from his talk for our students, many of whom have experienced doubt about their faith and been unsure how to deal with those, were these:

First, doubt is not a bad thing. Doubt invites deep reflection. It is sometimes the case that when doubt never arises, people refrain from growing into a mature appreciation and understanding of their faith.

Second, Jesus did not deal harshly with those who doubted. Rob referenced John the Baptist, who even after baptizing Jesus, as he was languishing in prison asked “are you the one.” Jesus did not express anger there. Nor did he when Thomas doubted after the Resurrection. Rob also reminded people that Jesus often answered questions with other questions, suggesting he was less interested in forcing blind acceptance of doctrine than inviting people to work through things to come to an understanding.

Finally, that what matters is not to be paralyzed by our doubt. That is, to understand that faith does not begin where doubt ends. Rather, we live our faith alongside the doubt. Whatever doubts exist at the intellectual level for a Christian should not stop hime or her from living lives consistent with the model given by Jesus.


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